The Middle Eastern country of Qatar is quickly becoming at home in the Gold Cup and Concacaf.

The Qatari national football team has made itself right at home at this month's Concacaf Gold Cup, following the Arab tradition of treating guests with respect and generosity. The Maroon, an invitee to the biennial regional championship, has been playing like it owns the place, with a 3-0-1 record and the most goals (12) in the tournament.

Qatar's addition of mystery and intrigue to an event that many of the continent's best players are missing due to injury, timing, and coaches with competing priorities has increased the event's overall appeal. But now it seems like it might stay too long. A triumph over the Americans S If Qatar wins Thursday night in Austin, they will advance to the Gold Cup final, and the confederation will have to deal with the uncomfortable reality that a team from the Arabian peninsula could be the champion of North and Central America and the Caribbean.  

Qatar, which has never qualified for a World Cup and is ranked just 58th by FIFA, would become the first country to hold two continental titles simultaneously (Australia, which moved from Oceania to Asia, won those respective crowns 11 years apart). Though it would be embarrassing for Concacaf to see the Maroon win the Gold Cup in Las Vegas, the explanation is simple: the usual championship suspects are playing at less than full strength, and Qatar is a complete, skilled, and cohesive side.

But even if Qatar is conquered by the U.S. S on August 11 in Austin, or August 12 in Mexico or Canada First, we won't be completely cut off from them after that. As time goes on, Qatar will become a regular fixture in Concacaf, a welcome visitor who has access to its own suite. A country smaller than Connecticut, but rich and ambitious (and some would say amoral), it has made a name for itself on the international sports scene. In its quest for clout and respectability, soccer has emerged as a key tool. The 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held in Qatar. The 2011 Asian Cup, the 2019 FIFA Club World Cup, and the February 2018 FIFA Confederations Cup were all held there. Its holdings include the Paris Saint-Germain football club. Qatar Airways, the country's most well-known company, is a World Cup and European Championship sponsor whose logo appears on the jerseys of AS Roma, Boca Juniors, Bayern Munich, and other professional sports teams.

Qatar scores vs. Honduras at the Concacaf Gold Cup

Photos by Thomas Shea for USA TODAY Sports

Not only that, but its national team has gone from being an afterthought to a trophy-winning ambassador unrestrained by the norms of bureaucracy. Due to scheduling conflicts, Qatar was unable to compete in this summer's Copa América despite having previously participated in the tournament. UEFA asked them to play friendly matches against the group's odd team every match day so that the group would have five teams. In addition, it has qualified for the Gold Cup. When money is invested, new and exciting competitive possibilities emerge. Qatar will spend whatever it takes to put together a World Cup-caliber team.

Due to an agreement signed between Concacaf and the Asian Football Confederation in 2018, Concacaf has been working with Qatar since 2018. Contracts of this nature are common, and they frequently involve provisions relating to management, creation, officiating, and best practices. After becoming the first country to ever win the Asian Cup the year after, Qatar went on to become the confederation's flagship as host of the 2022 World Cup. Given Qatar's rise, talks with Concacaf were inevitable, and the confederation extended an invitation to the 2021 and 2023 Gold Cups last year (the next Asian Cup is scheduled for the summer of 2023, so sacrifices will need to be made).

Since 2005, the Gold Cup has not had a special guest participant. Concacaf's goal was to demonstrate that it had the depth to host a compelling tournament without relying on high-profile teams from South America or elsewhere. The influence of Concacaf was expanding. Fifteen years later, it realized that with Qatar's support, it can expand even further.

Qatar has reached the Gold Cup semifinals

Photo by Billy Hardiman / USA TODAY Sports

Concacaf president Victor Montagliani, Concacaf director of development Jason Roberts, and Qatar FA general secretary Mansoor Al-Ansari unveiled a program last week in downtown Houston that will see Qatar fund grassroots coaching recruitment and education programs in each of the confederation's 41 countries over the next four years. While Concacaf did not disclose the exact amount of Qatar's investment, it is undoubtedly large and, in some cases, crucial, and is representative of the country's efforts to use sports and its wealth to expand its global influence.

It will give a tremendous boost to grassroots and community football in Concacaf," Montagliani said of the program. Montagliani said that the relationship with Qatar "will be game-changing for the development of football at all levels in our region" when they were invited to the Gold Cup last year. It would also facilitate dialogue and cooperation between the countries hosting the next two World Cups.

Qatar Airways was recently announced as a sponsor of both the Gold Cup and the Nations League, further cementing the financial ties between the two organizations. When the secondary men's national team competition in the region resumes in 2022, its logo will be plastered on stadiums and Fox broadcasts and its name will be attached to the official Nations League brand. Many of the smaller countries in Concacaf will be able to afford the necessary travel expenses thanks to this funding. In return, the airline will have the opportunity to promote itself to the large number of soccer fans from the United States and Mexico who will be attending the World Cup in 2018. The strategy is integrated into the national marketing plan.

All things considered, this is what sports look like in the twenty-first century. It's commercial. Of course, Qatar isn't like other markets in a lot of ways. The product is the country itself, which has been criticized repeatedly and fairly for its human rights record and the kafala system that underpins the building of the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup. Workers' rights are curtailed, workers' freedom of movement is thwarted, hazards are created, and there is potential for economic exploitation thanks to Qatar's migrant labor regulations. Over 6,500 migrant workers from five South Asian countries have died since Qatar was awarded World Cup hosting rights in late 2010. This was reported by The Guardian in February.

Qatar has reached the Gold Cup semifinals

Shot by Billy Hardiman for USA TODAY Sports

Despite this, the international community maintains its partnerships with Qatar and relations with the country's government and sporting institutions have returned to normal. In a statement to Sports Illustrated, Concacaf said, "While we understand and acknowledge that there are sometimes questions raised about wider political and social issues, we believe in positive engagement." The organization cited the aforementioned exchanges and investment in the region. in fostering football's growth independent of politics and in employing the sport as a positive force across Concacaf and beyond ”

While addressing the media on Wednesday, U S When laying the groundwork for the national team's January 2020 camp in Doha, coach Gregg Berhalter visited Qatar's Aspire national training center to scout out potential World Cup stadiums and training sites. The trip was ultimately called off due to rising tensions in the area after the United States embassy move. S the murder of an Iranian military official Berhalter also praised Qatar for providing opportunities for the country's young national team to play in competitive settings. Currently, the United States is facing a situation in which it S in time to guarantee automatic qualification for the 2026 FIFA World Cup

I've always wondered: "How do you get those intense games?" That's what's most impressive to me about them, Berhalter said, "is that they even bother to compete in tournaments like this." "This isn't the first time it's happened." Ahead of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, South Korea competed in the Gold Cup. So it's doable, and maybe it's a question to put to the U. S When a country wants to play in the United States Soccer League, they should contact the U.S. S in competitions of that sort, the men's team ”

Qatar has been looking both inside and outside of its borders. It has been painstakingly developing its men's national team program. Qatar's previous best was two quarterfinal appearances in 11 attempts to win the continental title prior to their 2019 Asian championship win, which they accomplished by going 14-1-0 across qualifying and the finals in the United Arab Emirates. After a decade of coaching young players at the Aspire academy and the U-19 and U-23 national teams, the Qatar Football Association (QFA) promoted Félix Sánchez to national team manager in 2017. He honed his skills in youth development while coaching the U-19 team for Barcelona.

Qatar manager Felix Sanchez

Featured image by Maria Lysaker/USA TODAY Sports

Qatar is trying to make up for its small population and lack of football history by emphasizing teamwork, unity, and authenticity. Despite the fact that 10 of Qatar's 23 Gold Cup players were born in other countries (six in Africa, two in Europe, and two in Iraq), they all currently represent Qatari clubs. The Doha powerhouse Al Sadd is coached by Spanish legend Xavi Hernández, while Al Duhail is led by former France midfielder Sabri Lamouchi. Together, these two teams have 24 players. Aspire provides a platform for Qatari players to develop and gain experience playing for clubs like Cultural Leonesa of Spain and KAS Eupen of Belgium, both of which are owned by Aspire. When they feel they are ready, they will return to the Qatari league to compete against other future national team members. This level of continuity is extremely unusual for a national team, but it has paid dividends for Sánchez by giving him a solid foundation of tactical and personal familiarity.

It appears that several Qatari players possess the ability to excel in other countries. However, they have decided to remain in their current location. Almoez Ali, a 24-year-old forward, has scored four goals in the Gold Cup. He was born in Sudan and received his training at Aspire before moving on to play in Austria and Spain. However, in 2016, he moved back to Al Duhail. Qatar's Akram Afif, a native of Doha, has been their most exciting and dynamic player this month. At the age of 24, he is the current Asian Player of the Year. However, in 2018, he returned to Al Sadd after spending time in Belgium and Spain.

According to Berhalter, "they are basically represented by two club teams." The inside scoop I got was that "they almost operate like a club team." Every week, after their club team games, the guys get together to regenerate at the Aspire facility. It gives them a chance to hang out, discuss the games, and enjoy each other's company. I can't wait to see how this strategy pans out in the World Cup because it's so different from anything else. ”

Midfielder Assim Madibo of Qatar said during the group stage, "It's a big thing to be honest, for me and my group, because we all came up together with the same coach." I've been immersed in this community for the past eleven or twelve years, so this achievement is particularly meaningful to me. The ultimate goal, what we're shooting for, what we're hoping to accomplish in this place ”

There are few obstacles that Qatar won't overcome. It has broken down conventional barriers and developed novel (albeit costly) strategies to address the challenges posed by its background and technological and operational limitations. Despite some opposition, it has been accepted by the vast majority of the football establishment. Qatar is a powerful and influential visitor. And it'll be a serious test for the young American squad on Thursday night, despite their team's impressive resiliency so far in the tournament.

Speaking on Wednesday, Sánchez said, "It's a great game for us, to play a semifinal in such a competition as this." "Our goal is to compete, to test our abilities in a new environment outside of our normal region." We are excited and inspired to have made it this far in the competition. ”

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